2017-05-18 / Front Page

Biddeford’s DDC on chopping block

By Grant McPherson
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – The future of Biddeford’s Downtown Development Commission remains unclear ahead of a special council meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, May 18, the first of two public hearings on the city budget that will take place. Part of the budget being discussed is funding for a new Downtown Improvement District, a proposal the council asked City Manager Jim Bennett to develop. The district would collect additional taxes from downtown property owners to implement projects that go above and beyond the city’s typical amenities.

Bill Durkin, chairman of the Downtown Development Commission, said he hopes the commission will still exist but that it’s not up to members. The commission’s mission is to encourage the growth of new and existing commercial firms downtown and consult on matters related to parking, traffic circulation, historic districts, land use, public utilities, landscape and streetscape.

Durkin submitted a budget for $8,200 for the 2017-2018 fiscal year but Bennett entered their budget in for zero dollars. Durkin said ideally the Downtown Development Commission would operate as a go between for downtown business owners and city officials, but lately hasn’t felt much support from the city manger or council.

The Downtown Development Commission, in operation since 1995, has worked on recent projects such as a website for the downtown but never received direction from the city on it. It is also working to develop WiFi hot spots downtown. Durkin isn’t concerned, however, about the future of downtown Biddeford. He said private investors such as Doug Sanford would continue current projects in the buildings they own.

“People might see a change in how the public is involved in city hall activities with the DDC gone,” he said.

As a municipal organization the Downtown Development Commission has close ties with other departments within the city, including the public works and economic development departments. Durkin isn’t sure how a private organization such as the Downtown Improvement District would manage those kinds of relationships. The Downtown Development Commission is prohibited from raising funds like Heart of Biddeford can or the Downtown Improvement District would be able to. Durkin said he would like the Downtown Development Commission to keep running even if it wasn’t allocated a budget for next year, although he’s not sure what that would look like.

“For a while there was no one picking up trash downtown. So we ended up finding someone to go around and pick things up and funded it on the side. For years the city council hasn’t been paying attention to downtown,” Durkin said.

Ultimately Durkin felt he and the commission had been around long enough and didn’t feel the need to fight for its continuation. Durkin said city councilors in various administrations have tried to disband the Downtown Development Commission during the past 20 years and said he doesn’t think city officials have ever grasped the unique position the commission has been in as an arm of municipal government. Durkin wonders how a nonprofit will be able to fill the same roll or bring new insight to old problems.

“The same issues from 22 years ago are still being talked about. Just in the past few years or so the city is awakening to the fact that there really is something downtown and it needs attention,” Durkin said.

The Downtown Development Commission has two options, to redefine its mission or dissolve. Bennett said in the past about $6,000 of the Downtown Development Commission’s $8,200 budget has been used for cleaning the downtown area. Those efforts will be overseen by the Downtown Improvement District going forward. The commission also planted flowers downtown every spring for about $2,000. Currently $45,511 worth of flowers, plants and evergreens are scheduled to be planted before Memorial Day. Fiscal year 2018 has $27,500 budgeted on flowers in the proposed downtown district.

In the future, Bennett sees the Downtown Development Commission acting as a policy recommendation board, advising on topics such as downtown signs and gateway design. The city, however, already has an official policy committee in place.

Bennett said no community will ever have all the money it needs for projects, and atmospheric changes rarely find funding. The Downtown Development Commission has to compete for resources just like any other project. A decision has to be made between picking up trash and planting flowers or fixing roads and sewers.

Bennett said he did not consult the Downtown Development Commission when mapping out the city budget for the coming fiscal year.

If approved, the Downtown Improvement District will operate independently from city oversight, submitting requests for use of collected funds. This differs from the Heart of Biddeford, Bennett said, which has received a budget of between $20,000 and $30,000 the past two years and would have difficulty operating without the city’s involvement. The city will hold onto the money the Downtown Improvement District raises until the board of directors chooses what to do with it. Bennett expects that the additional tax would be $49 cents per $1,000 of value during the first transitional year.

As of now the Downtown Improvement District has $88,000 earmarked in the budget for fiscal year 2017- 2018. The proposal will cover beautification projects, promotional marketing, downtown activities, cleaning and maintenance.

Bennett wants downtown property owners to be involved in the discussion and will help with the formation of the nonprofit and different bylaws. He believes it has proven successful in the past and will not be a big risk.

“Let us show you how it can work before you demand a fix. The best way to do that is to spend the money. Then you can figure out how much it would help your business and what you want to contribute.”

Delilah Poupore, executive director at the Heart of Biddeford, said there could be potential to increase the scale of downtown projects. Heart of Biddeford, a nonprofit, quasi municipal organization founded in 2004, works with the city on downtown projects. The board of directors has no official stance on whether or not a Downtown Improvement District would benefit the community, Poupore said. Because of the suggested increase in the mil rate the board did not want to speak on behalf of property owners in downtown Biddeford. However, Poupore said if property owners want to seriously consider the proposal, HOB is happy to provide examples of how organizations like this have succeeded in the past.

“There’s an opportunity for more comprehensive programs, because of the collective impact of all of the property owners,” Poupore said.

She also noted that there are still many questions to answer such as how the Downtown Improvement District would be formed, who would comprise the board of directors and how the voting system would operate. In Portland downtown businesses vote based on how much they are taxed, with those paying more receiving more weight. She stressed the importance of making sure that property owners felt it was the right time before action was taken.

Contact Staff Writer Grant McPherson at news@inthecourier.com

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